The unholy links between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) have made us all think more honestly about the free-for-all 1970s when vital, decisive liberties were won but there was also societal chaos, dissolution of moral judgements and smashed boundaries.
I think it is now irrefutable that key figures at the NCCL should have denied affiliation status to the PIE or expelled the group after it had infiltrated the organisation. Concerned outside individuals who objected were ignored. Harriet Harman, her husband Jack Dromey, and Patricia Hewitt were some of those on the left who worked at the NCCL. Harman and Dromey have fought fervently all their lives for equality and human rights; Hewitt too has tackled gender discrimination. We would not have made any progress on gay and gender parity without such campaigners.
The good they have done must not be washed away in this storm. However, they must now understand how back then, when they were young and fiery, brave intentions and utopian ideals sometimes led to abominable decisions and terrible consequences. It is not a betrayal of progressive politics to come clean and acknowledge those truths.
Absolute freedom was an intoxication then; it was in the very air you breathed. And it is in our times too. We have got more vigilant about child-abusers, and it is unlikely that we would ever again have another Jimmy Savile. But the libertarianism of the left in the 1960s has, since the 1990s, mutated into libertarianism of the right. For many on this side of the political spectrum, anything goes so long as it makes money.
Let’s to 1972, when I landed on these isles. At home and at school I’d been taught that Great Britons, though uptight, were supremely disciplined and that in their proud, specially blessed land everything worked perfectly. This was the fag-end of the 1960s revolution, which I had thought was mostly about pop music, young love and op art dresses. Gradually I realised that the old order had collapsed and that the young thought they could do what the hell they wanted.
Harry Fletcher, an expert on crime and prisons, recalls this extraordinarily liberal period, with people pushing back all limits. I was young, just married to a childhood sweetheart. With my now ex-husband I went to Oxford for post-grad studies where we felt out of place and terribly confused - wanting to belong and knowing that we just couldn’t. To be married and monogamous was to be backward.
We too got carried away for a while by this modern spirit of destructive “independence” from promises, duties, each other. I look back with shame. In class, one tutor spent a whole tutorial persuading us that all pre-puberty girls were Lolitas who really wanted guidance into sexuality by older, experienced males. PIE and similar leaflets were on the walls of student common rooms, as were barely hidden offers to sell drugs. Freedom became an excuse for addictions, exploitation, and sometimes pure evil.
Think now about this century. The younger generations are given the language and fruits of freedom, but no lessons in how those liberties can be managed or should sometimes be refused because they bring dangers. When the UN and other agencies compare the well-being of children in different parts of the world, we come into the bottom half of the league.
British kids are less happy and healthy than those in Slovenia and Czech Republic. ( Unicef, 2013) They generally drink more, take more drugs, have sex younger, and suffer more STDs than their counterparts in other European nations. They are free, you see. Except they are not. In reality millions are under pressure to never to say no, to succumb to messages they see online and which are pumped out by the music industry, TV and films.
This January the British Board of Censors agreed to look again at how it might protect children from raunchy pop videos . Oh my. The anti-censorship lobby will be dismayed. Young children in this country are constantly bombarded in public spaces with pictures of pouting females, boobs and bums. Just count the billboards next time you’re out. I would slash and ruin some perfume adverts if I could.
In 2006, the Australia Institute commissioned two academics, Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, to examine contemporary influences on childhood, in particular those damaging the very young. They concluded that “corporate paedophilia” – meaning advertising, marketing, and selling - now targets and uses six- to 11-year-olds as bait. The result may be higher sales, but also the unstoppable sexualisation of children. Those images must surely encourage filthy men who groom girls to think they are doing no wrong. Rush and Nauze were howled down for raising the issue. Who dares to rock the boat? Those at the NCCL didn’t. Those who should do so now either don’t or can’t.
Liberty is not licence. It is one of the most precious of human rights, which sometimes must give way to other concerns. Otherwise it is nihilism - permissiveness without conscience.